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The Story Of Spanish Town

Spanish Town Square 1820

By Dr. Rebecca Tortello
1509, five years after having been marooned for 347 days in the northeastern town of Sevilla la Nueva, what is now known as St. Ann`s Bay, Christopher Columbus bequeathed Jamaica to his heirs.

For some 30 years early Spanish colonists settled in or near to St. Ann`s Bay until they realized that these locations were plagued by swamps.

They looked south to a town on a wide fertile plain, a town they named Villa de la Vega (Town of the Plain). Now known as Spanish Town, it was founded in 1534 and became the capital in 1538. Having been a Taino settlement beginning close to 500
AD, and subsequently the seat of Spanish and British colonial governments for some 333 years, Spanish Town is the oldest continuously occupied city in the Western Hemisphere. Its history is largely the history of early

In general, Spanish Jamaica was poor and badly governed. Its economy was based on cow hides and lard. It never prospered and was more of a burden than a benefit to Spain (Black, 1965). Indeed, Spanish governors were rarely present and many of the settlers became discouraged and abandoned the island, frustrated that they had no luck finding the gold they so desired. Spanish Town, however, was a good choice for a capital because for the first time since arriving in Jamaica the Spanish chose a site where the land was good for farming.

Spanish Town`s proximity to the Rio Cobre was considered important in terms of health, and its closeness to a major waterway, the Kingston Harbour, important in terms of safety. The town`s inland location meant an added
level security against marauding invaders † a significant problem in the late 16th and early 17th centuries as other nations sought to weaken Spanish dominance in the region. Jamaica`s main use was as a supply depot
(in the conquest of Mexico and lands to its south); its immense agricultural resources and strategic value were unrecognized and it was left virtually defenseless, its coasts often unprotected, making it a prime target for attack. English Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was well aware of this fact and unlike the Spanish, he realized the strategic and political value of the Caribbean islands, particularly Jamaica, which, with its location close to Central and South America was to Cromwell, a `dagger pointed at Spain`s soft underbelly` (Sherlock and Campbell, 1998, p. 84).

On the morning of May 10, 1655 two Spanish fishermen said to be out searching for turtles off Port Morant looked up and in shock saw a fleet of 38 ships with large cannons moving towards them. The British had arrived. Turtles forgotten, the fishermen spread the word and messengers set off for Villa de la Vega to warn the settlers. Close to 9000 men were said to have disembarked from those 38 ships † some 3000 more than the actual population of the island at the time. The capital city fell within days. Yet when the British realized that many Spaniards had fled to Cuba taking their valuables with them, they burned many buildings in anger. Much of Spanish Town was later rebuilt but during that time Port Royal acted as the unofficial capital, and the pirates based there protected the island from invasion until the devastating 1692 earthquake.

Under the British
From the 1500s to the early 1600s, Spanish Town, renamed such by the British, was the only settled town in Jamaica. It remained the capital under the British until 1872 when the young city of Kingston assumed that honour. In 1670, after years of war with Spain, Jamaica was officially given to Britain by the Treaty of Madrid.

The checkerboard plan the Spanish adopted in 1534 still largely influences the layout of the town today (Buisseret, 1969, p. 36). The original Spanish plaza was located near to where the Anglican Cathedral now stands and slightly to the north, where the ruins of Old King`s House now stands, was the Spanish Governor`s house. Under the British, the Square was rebuilt in the mid-1700s following a grid-like plan by John Pitcairne and was replete with Georgian architrecture. It is now considered one of the world`s finest Georgian Squares.

For some 180 years Spanish Town Square was the home of the British colonial seat of government, the Parish Council and House of Assembly, the island`s archives, the Supreme Court and the first King`s House, residence of many colonial governors. Built in the mid-1700s and burnt in a fire in 1925, the colonnaded
portico and facade of King`s House are all that remain. In 1838 the proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery was read from the steps of King`s House. King`s House is also linked with a number of secret underground passages that many now say existed for drainage purposes. One story holds that a passage connected
King`s House with the Assembly, another connected it with the river. (Black, 1960, p. 57).

18th Century Spanish Town
In the 18th century Spanish Town was a hub of activity. It is where:

  • In 1720 the pirate Calico Jack Rackham, who counted the notorious female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read among his crew, was tried and convicted.
  • In 1773, Lewis Hutchison, the Mad Master of Edinburgh Castle, said to have tortured and killed visitors to his area of the island, was hung.
  • In 1725, the Maroon Treaty that recognized the Maroons as the first autonomous people of African heritage in the New World was signed.
  • In 1780s, a group of armed Maroons marched holding the mutilated head of the bandit Three-Fingered Jack aloft to claim a $300 reward.
  • Paul Bogle marched in vain to meet with then Governor Eyre to explain the plight of the peasants who would go on to riot under his leadership in what is now known as the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 (Black, 1960, pp. 23-4).

It was also the seat of entertainment and the location of numerous balls and concerts. All new governors were feted in style and then required to repay the colonial gentry by holding open houses during the sitting of the Assembly, a practice about which pirate-turned-governor Henry Morgan complained cost him some $1,000. All distinguished visitors to the island were brought to Spanish Town, among them:Horatio Nelson.

Captain Bligh, known for having survived a mutiny amongst his crew and for having brought the breadfruit, among other plants and fruits to Jamaica

Admiral Rodney, for whom a statue now stands on the north side of Spanish Town Square, was also a distinguished visitor.

The memorial designed by the famous English sculptor John Bacon in 1801 commemorates Rodney`s victory over a French fleet that had attempted to invade the island in 1782. Rodney is portrayed to resemble a Roman emperor. Heraldic symbols on the pediment tell the story of the battle and the cannon on either side were taken from the French flagship. A tavern dating from Spanish time, which is said to have also been where the mules and horses belonging to the Spanish governor were tethered was
demolished to make way for the statue (Black, 1960, p. 36).

Architecturally, Spanish Town remains a national treasure. Near the town`s entrance stands the oldest iron bridge of its kind in Western Hemisphere. Cast in England it was erected in 1801 at a cost of È4,000. On the eastern side of the Square, where the Assembly used to be, is now housed the offices of the St Catherine parish council. The original House of Assembly was built in 1762. On the south side of the square stand the burned remains of the former Courthouse, built in 1819, the victim of a 1986 fire. It is believed that on this site once stood the Spanish Church of the White Cross, said to have been connected by an underground passage to a monastery on nearby Monk Street. Also nearby on Barracks Street lie the remains of military barracks erected in 1791 to house both soldiers and officers. A large underground passage has been discoveredthere, although its origin and purpose remain elusive (Black, 1960, pp. 39-40).

East of the Square on Red Church Street stands the Anglican Cathedral on the site of the Spanish Chapel of the Red Cross which was destroyed by Cromwell`s soldiers. The first Anglican Church building was destroyed by hurricane in 1712 and rebuilt in 1714. In 1843 it was named the Cathedral of the Jamaican Diocese
of the Anglican Church. A mixture of many
different architectural styles including medieval, the Cathedral is shaped like a cross and includes a number of monuments by John Bacon. Its floor is graced with marble headstone memorials to prominent British colonists that date as far back as the 1700s. The Cathedral`s majestic tower greets visitors to the town as dignified today, 150 years later, as it was when it was new in 1817. It is one of few steeples to be found in the Caribbean. Next to the Cathedral, now known as the St. Catherine Parish Church, is the St. Catherine District Prison.

The history of Spanish Town lives on in the remnants of the old buildings that harken back to days gone and in its street names that mark it as a microcosm of the island`s overall history. Reminders of Spanish Jamaica include Red Church and White Church Streets, symbolic of the Spanish chapels of the red and white cross, as well as Monk Street, in reference to the monastery that once stood nearby. Nugent Street and Manchester Street are namedfor British Colonial Governors, while King Street is so named as it runs past King`s House and Constitution Street, near to the Square, refers to the fact that the island`s administrative centre used to be located there.

Sources: Black, C. (1960). Spanish Town - The Old Capital. Spanish Town: Parish Council of St. Catherine. Buisseret, D. (1996). Historic Jamaica from the air. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, Sherlock, P. and Campbell, H. (1998). The Story of the Jamaican People. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers. www.nlj.org.jm/docs/spanishtown.htm, www.discoverjamaica.com/gleaner/

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Complete List of Past Pieces
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June 20, 1965: Martin Luther King Jr. visits Jamaica
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The History of Our Parishes
Jamaica and the Great War
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The First 500 years in Jamaica

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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted May 19, 2003.
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